Imagine printing an organ in less than an hour. Anthony
Atala and others have implemented various techniques that
allow them to accomplish this goal.1 This represents a way to
circumvent many of the moral questions and logistical problems
associated with organ transplants. It may be a while
until transplanting 3-D organs is the norm in medicine, but
this development is still a promising one.
First, it is important to provide a little background as to
why organ transplantation is an issue in society today. There
is a scarcity of organs in the United States. Many individuals
have died waiting for them. Some have argued that opening a
market for organ transplants would be a reasonable solution.
However, that market is considered to be a repugnant one.
For one, many individuals view organs as something sacred
and intrinsic to the human body. Merely trading them represents
an affront to that notion.2
Secondly, there is an issue of coercion. In other words,
markets can compel people to sell their organs. Hypothetically,
a working-class individual could make $2000 a month.
If this person were offered $5000 for one of his kidneys this
would represent more than a month’s wages. Even though
$5000 seems like very little money for an organ it could be
an enormous sum for a few people. Selling one of his organs
could be even more appealing to him if the amount offered is
higher. There’s a chance that one’s economic situation could
be particularly dire and that person could be very needy.
Therefore the presentation of a very large sum could essentially
force one’s hand into donating an organ when he or she
wouldn’t have done so.2
Regardless of whether or not organ transplants exist,
there are huge logistical issues trying to coordinate donors.
For example, Person A needs a kidney but his sister Person B
isn’t a match for him. Person C is in the same predicament as
Person A. However, Person C’s sibling, Person D, is a match
for Person A and Person’s A’s sister is a match for Person C.
An organ swap can be coordinated and both Persons A and
B get the organs they need. Unfortunately, there are logistical
issues to be dealt with when one has to deal with four
The issues with current transplantation have been established,
but how does 3D organ printing alleviate them. To
answer these questions, it is necessary to understand how this
Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University has printed
an organ by first taking CT scans of patients in need of an
organ.3 He then builds a scaffold in the shape of the organ.
Using a modified inkjet printer, Dr. Atala adds layers of
human cells to the scaffold. The cells then grow at human
body temperature. Normally, it is difficult to maintain cells
outside the body, but recent advancements in the field of cell
culture have resulted in cells being maintained for a longer
period of time.
How does this development address the ethical and logistical
concerns associated with organ transplants? First, the
organs are being generated from a patient’s own cells, so they
are not only a perfect match, but it completely sidesteps any
issue of using biological materials from anyone else’s body.
Secondly, this technology is scalable, meaning that there
hypothetically can be many 3D printers that generate organs.
This means that the supply of organs has increased and that
the price of printing those organs could foreseeably go down.
It also means that the costs of performing transplantation
surgeries could decrease as well, because doctors now would
have the ability to perform many more surgeries. This means
that they could become routine procedures and the risks
associated with them could decrease as well.
The most exciting thing about this is that this medical
revolution could very well be on the horizon. In 1998 Dr.
Atala successfully treated Luke Massella, an individual who
suffered from spina bifida. After undergoing many surgeries
to treat his condition no treatment seemed to be working.
Finally, it was agreed that undergoing this experimental procedure
was best for Luke.3
Using Luke’s own cells, Dr. Atala generated a new bladder
for him. The organ then underwent transplantation. As of
January 2010, Luke was a happy, healthy college student.
There is no question that these procedures can be successful,
but when are they going to be used on a massive-scale? It’s
going to be a while until full organs can be printed. However,
there are important advancements that suggest a promising
future. Small-scale tissues are currently being used for drug
discovery.4 It’s impossible to tell exactly when this technology
will present itself as new organs. Hopefully, it will be sooner
rather than later.